"I rather make a friend than to catch a fish."
This is a favorite saying among the Puerto Rico Light Tackle anglers and a quote with huge significance to one of the group's founding members. For Ralph "Agie" Vicente, it was the friends he's made, the friends he has, and the friends he will make through fishing, that are what makes the sport special to him. Of course, like any great angler, catching, and nowadays releasing, has always been great fun too.
Born in New York to a family with long roots in Puerto Rico, Vicente started fishing as a young boy.
"My father had a native boat, a yola, and we'd fish the reefs off Dorado Beach," he says. "We'd catch a lot of jacks, mainly bottom fishing."
What drew Vicente immediately to the sport and has held his imagination ever since was that no day of fishing is ever the same. "Every day it's something different. The sea is different. The hooks ups are different. It's not boring. Even when I've been out six and seven hours with nothing, it's that moment of excitement, the moment the fish bites, that is something you never get tired of."
"I'd take the bus down to Club Nautico (de San Juan) after school and watch the boats come into the dock. They'd have all these weird looking fish with bills. It was the 1950's, I was 11 and 12 years old at the time, and here were the big captains, the likes of Johnny Harms and Ray Bushay, coming in. It was exciting."
Shortly thereafter, Vicente caught his first billfish. "We went out in a 14-foot Boston Whaler, single engine, north of San Juan. It was near shore, 1959, and I caught a sailfish."
After that, he says, "I'd jump on any boat that I could. There were several of the old timers at the club that were retired, fished often, and willing to have a young person aboard to help and keep them company. I learned a lot and had a really good time."
In the early to mid-1960's, Vicente started fishing in the nearby Virgin Islands. "I can remember going up to the first tournament they hosted out of Little Dix Bay in Virgin Gorda. Harms was there aboard the Savanna Bay. We also fished Sea Mount (south of Virgin Gorda)."
Later, Vicente enjoyed fishing the USVI Open/Atlantic Blue Marlin or Boy Scout Tournament.
"The Boy Scout Tournament is the most competitive in the world. It has a lot of good crews, captains and anglers. You won't find the same type of competition anywhere else in the world, or the number of good anglers, captains and crews all in one place. Fifty-pound test, time limits and Jimmy Loveland rules. Plus, its conservation minded," Vicente says.
One of Vicente's most memorable catches occurred in the Virgin Islands. "It was during the Virgin Islands' Game Fishing Club's annual July Open Tournament in 1978. The first day, only three of us caught fish - me, a guy from Texas, and Elliott Fishman, Sr., who has previously caught an 800-plus-pounder and set a world record. Well, the second day, I caught a 703.5-pounder. It was the fourth largest blue marlin caught in the Virgin Islands at the time. Elliott joked that I should go out and party instead of fish the last day of the tournament. I obviously had the tournament won. But, I went out and fished anyway."
Of the fight, he said of the whopper, "I was fishing with Capt. Mike Benetiz aboard the Seaborne. We hooked up the marlin on 130-pound test and mackerel for bait. Right from the start Mike could see that it was big. It jumped a lot and it took me an hour and ten minutes to get it in."
Vicente adds, "We boated the fish back then. But, that was the last one I ever boated. I started to release fish after that. After all, if you release it today, you can catch it again tomorrow."
Vicente adopted his release stance before it became widely popular and was one of the founding members of The Billfish Foundation (TBF). "I was on a steering committee with Win Rockefeller, Tim Choate, Don Tyson and Ralph Christiansen back in 1984. We hosted the first fundraiser for the Foundation at our International Billfish Tournament in San Juan and the next year we incorporated."
His association with TBF was formed out of two of Vincente's best friendships, with the late Win Rockefeller and Tim Choate.
"I miss Win a lot. He was a very special advocate for billfish," he says. "I remember fishing with him at one of the Shootouts in the Bahamas. For some reason, I missed the boat and had to get another boat to take me out to Win's. The sea was so choppy that we couldn't get close enough for me to jump. So, I jumped in the water and swam over. I told Win, there wasn't many people I'd do something like that for!"
Vicente has fished the Galapagos and Guatemala with Choate and helped Choate continue his pioneering work of billfish conservation. For example, during the 2005 Salinas International Billfish Tournament, Vicente and Dr. Michael Domeier of the Pfluger Institute of Environmental Research (PIER) in San Diego, California, presented a program about the social and economic benefits of a well-regulated sport fishing industry during the tournament's layday.
"There's no dedicated commercial fishing in the Galapagos and Guatemala, and the Galapagos has some of the best striped marlin fishing and Guatemala some of the best sailfish," Vicente says.
One of Vincente's proudest accomplishments is his work in billfish conservation closer to home.
"In the mid-1990's, I traveled throughout the Caribbean, to Trinidad, Grenada, Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin, trying to encourage the release of billfish. The idea wasn't always easy to convince people of," Vicente says.
Over the years, Vicente has traveled and fished the world. "I've gone to Africa, fished Kenya and in the Indian Ocean. Also to Australia, New Zealand, Ecuador, Panama, Cabo San Lucas, the Dominican Republic, Madeira, the Bahamas, Brazil and Hawaii."
In Brazil, Vicente released a near grander with Capt. Rick Defeo aboard the Tyson's Pride.
Eight years of fishing Hawaiian waters, as well as a global search, did leave Vicente skunked in one regard.
"I've never been able to catch a spearfish. That's the only billfish I've not been able to catch."
When he isn't fishing, Vicente enjoyed a 35-year career in the fuel industry, owning and operating a chain of gas stations, convenience stores and car washes throughout Puerto Rico. Six years ago, he founded Antilles Yacht Sales and became the Hatteras Yacht dealer for Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Dominican Republic. Four years in a row, Vicente was awarded the prestigious Hatteras' Top Gun Award, which honors the salesperson who sells the most Hatteras yachts to customers who previously owned competitive products.
In the future, Vicente says, "I see it very dim unless we do more to conserve the species. We have to take care of our fisheries or we will lose them."
On a brighter note, Vicente verifies that Puerto Rico boasts some great-undiscovered grounds off the west coast of the island. "If you fish off Mayaguez in April, May and June, then go over to St. Thomas for July and August, and back to Mayaguez in September and October, you can easily release over 200 blue marlin. The fishing grounds off Mayaguez are about 25 to 35 miles out into the Mona Passage. The fish are small, about 100 to 200 pounds, but its great for light tackle."